Film

The Signature Themes in Abbas Kiarostami’s Masterful Short Films

The IFC Center is running the largest retrospective to date of Abbas Kiarostami’s work, and its short film program is full of the director’s masterfully rendered trademarks.

Still from Close-Up (courtesy Janus Films)

Playing Director

In a short YouTube video published this past March German filmmaker Christian Petzold recounts a humorous meeting between himself and the late Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. Both directors are staying several nights at Trump Tower for a nearby event when they find themselves sharing a ridiculously overpriced breakfast in the hotel lobby. The next morning, independent of each other, the directors decide to avoid the hefty price tag, instead venturing into Central Park for a cheap bite. Knowing full well they might meet, Petzold concocts a story he can tell Kiarostami in case he runs into him, just to assure Kiarostami he wasn’t following him. Without spoiling this entirely, let it just be said that when the two directors run into each other, it turns out Kiarostami has manufactured a very similar story of his own.  

The scene runs a little like so many from a Kiarostami film — repeated chance encounters; a tale invented by a filmmaker about trying to find the location of a film he saw; another filmmaker who has invented a similar story; stories within stories, films within films; and possible paths taken or not taken. Perhaps the only thing that might render this even more Kiarostami-like would be if the director had actually asked Petzold to meet again and play himself in a film that blends their stories with the films in question to produce a new work. “Playing the part of a director is acting in itself,” says Sabzian, the main character in Kiarostami’s docu-fiction Close-Up from 1990. Indeed, Kiarostami devoted his life in film to creating a body of work that singularly embroils the director perforce in Borgesian loops of fictional play; never coyly, but rather through a tender, poetic lens fixed on the mundane and ordinary.

The IFC Center is currently running the largest retrospective to date of Kiarostami’s work. The retrospective features many of the director’s widely unavailable early works, new restorations of earlier works (including a brand-new, stunning one of the Palme d’Or–winning film A Taste of Cherry, released in 1998), as well as a huge range of his rarely seen, masterful shorts.

Still from Case #1 Case #2 (courtesy Janus Films)

Outcomes

Kiarostami delights in multiple outcomes. Paths fork; a turn could take us off course while also yielding an unknown encounter — with a blocked road, a talkative stranger, a mulberry tree, or a town destroyed by an earthquake. His shorts frequently catalogue these developments. They’re films depicting a scenario alongside its opposite or films inviting us to ruminate on possibilities in reordering our lives. Orderly Or Disorderly, a 15-minute short from 1981, is just that — a series of thoughtfully framed shots reproducing identical sketches choreographing events in both orderly and disorderly manners. But what at first seems a simple formalist schematic reveals itself to be a subtle meditation on crowds, class, manners, and the way populations experience order and time. All the while, Kiarostami exposes the very apparati of filmmaking, splicing a clapboard (chalkboard) between the scenes and editing Kiarostami and his team’s conversation into the film. 

Similarly, Kiarostami’s masterful 1979 45-minute short feature Case #1 Case #2 posits two classroom scenarios, one in which a boy confesses to drumming on a desk, another in which a group of students collectively resist. Crowds; power; quiet resistance; an implicit attention to the medium of film itself as a subject; film as an apparatus amplifying ambiguity surrounding versions of truth and fraud — all of this is signature Kiarostami, tendencies and motifs that play out throughout his oeuvre. But it’s the open circuitry of the films that delicately balances artifice, one’s perceived reality, and the system of others’ perceptions that makes Kiarostami and his work so intriguingly human.

Still from The Bread and Alley (courtesy Janus Films)

In Transit

Kiarostami is a director of roads and routes. Cinematography charts the psycho-social space of long, searching journeys — down an alley, along a mountain road, through a town, and so frequently, inside a car. From his very first 1970 short The Bread and Alley to 1992’s And Life Goes On (the second film in his Koker trilogy) to 2004’s 10 (with its dashboard cam), and many in-between, his films constantly track individuals as they amble from one destination to the next, revealing layer upon layer of psycho-social terrain. Seldomly do we know a character’s motivation up front. Kiarostami thrusts us into a voyage with little explanation.

In Bread and Alley, a boy kicks a can down a street, watches people pass by, grows sleepy and anxious, and follows an old man, but it’s not until well into the film that we meet the dog who accounts for some of his apprehension. We know from the get-go that father and son in And Life Goes On are trying to get somewhere — Koker, Iran — and that some roads have been closed, but it’s not explicit until their journey unravels along roads passing through towns decimated by an earthquake. The main character in Taste of Cherry is clearly in search of someone, but Kiarostami gives no backstory. The film is even more enthralling when we discover that the main character is in search of an individual willing to bury him after he’s committed suicide.

For these films, driving is learning. Moving along a road is a way of thinking. Very real obstacles litter the routes running through this body of work. In one of his most triumphant shorts Solution (1978), a man tries to catch a ride along a snowy mountainous road. In typical Kiarostami fashion, we only witness the spare tire he’s attempting to transport about halfway through. It’s in his solution, his revelation, that he ascertains a new way to travel.

Still from Where Is the Friend’s House? (courtesy Janus Films)

Uncertain Real

“Neorealism” doesn’t adequately capture Kiarostami’s endeavors. His microscopic attention to life’s everyday details is a celebration of our many trivialities as much as our constant state of uncertainty. In an instant, an earthquake can undo everything — a family, its relatives, and its house. One’s perception shifts. “This is my movie house,” says a character in And Life Goes On, referring to his “new” house post-earthquake, literally his house in a movie, and now his actual house. In Where Is the Friend’s House? (1984), a pair of brown pants hanging from a clothesline only obscures the whereabouts of an address and is the subject of much debate.

“What do you want son?”
“Is this Nematzadeh’s house?”
“Where were you told it was?”
“Around here. Near a tree. That tree”
“We have many trees here, my boy.”
“Near a dried up tree.”
“We have many dried up trees.”
“Nematzadeh’s house isn’t here, but I know him.”

Where Is the Friend’s House

Such constant discrepancies amidst reality make adhering to a single version of truth near impossible. While Kiarostami’s films in no way constitute magical realism, they reside in the shifting folds of reality. A reality that reliably but never hastily shuffles us through the poetry of the everyday — the poetry being the hidden rhythms and patterns of our existence available to us, should we be willing to hear them in all their mystery. Be it the social geography of a car ride or the psychological landscape inside a vehicle, Kiarostami allows us to endure the pressure and likewise freedom of not knowing how one might get to where one hopes to go, nor with whom one might end up. All of these concepts together form a terrain of the mind, one apprehending life and all its possibilities before our very eyes.

Abbas Kiarostami: A Retrospective continues at the IFC Center (323 6th Avenue, West Village, Manhattan) through August 15.

comments (0)